Conspiracies & Rationality

A conspiracy theory usually attributes the ultimate cause of an event or chain of events (usually political, social, pop cultural or historical events), or the concealment of such causes from public knowledge, to a secret, and often deceptive plot by a group of powerful or influential people or organizations. Many conspiracy theories imply that major events in history have been dominated by conspirators who manipulate political happenings from behind the scenes. Historians often take conspiracy theories as actual theory, i.e., the viewpoint with the greatest explanatory value and the greatest utility as a starting point for further investigation, explanation and problem solving.

There are no less than 10,000 sites on the internet that explore, or further conspiracy theories. Amongst the leading theories are the following (Wired Magazine, Issue 15.11):

Nasa Faked the Moon Landings
And Arthur C. Clarke wrote the script, at least in one version of the story. Space skeptics point to holes in the Apollo archive (like missing transcripts and blueprints) or oddities in the mission photos (misplaced crosshairs, funny shadows). A third of respondents to a 1970 poll thought something was fishy about mankind’s giant leap. Today, 94 percent accept the official version… Saps!

The US Government Was Behind 9/11
Or Jews. Or Jews in the US government. The documentary Loose Change claimed to find major flaws in the official story — like the dearth of plane debris at the site of the Pentagon blast and that jet fule alone could never vaporize a whole 757. Judge for yourself: After Popular Mechanics debunked the theory, the magazine’s editors faced off with proponents in a debate, available on YouTube.

Princess Diana Was Murdered
Rumors ran wild after Princess Diana’s fatal 1997 car crash, and they haven’t stopped yet. Reigning theories: She faked her death to escape the media’s glare, or the royals snuffed her out (via MI6) to keep her from marrying her Muslim boyfriend. For the latest scenarios, check out www.alfayed.com, the Web site of her boyfriend’s dad, Mohamed Al Fayed.

The Jews Run Hollywood and Wall Street
A forged 19th-century Russian manuscript called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (virtually required reading in Nazi Germany) purports to lay out a Jewish plot to control media and finance, and thus the world. Several studies have exposed the text as a hoax, but it’s still available in numerous languages and editions.

The Scientologists Run Hollywood
The long list of celebrities who have had Dianetics on their nightstands fuels rumors that the Church of Scientology pulls the strings in Tinseltown — vetting deals, arranging marriages, and spying on stars. The much older theory is that Jews run Hollywood, and the Scientologists have to settle for running Tom Cruise.

Paul Is Dead
Maybe you’re amazed, but in 1969 major news outlets reported on rumors of the cute Beatle’s death and replacement by a look-alike. True believers pointed to a series of clues buried in the Fab Four’s songs and album covers. Even for skeptics, McCartney’s later solo career lent credibility to the theory.

AIDS Is a Man-Made Disease
A number of scientists have argued that HIV was cooked up in a lab, either for bioweapons research or in a genocidal plot to wipe out gays and/or minorities. Who supposedly did the cooking? US Army scientists, Russian scientists, or the CIA. Mainstream researchers point to substantial evidence that HIV jumped species from African monkeys to humans.

Lizard-People Run the World
If a science fiction-based religion isn’t exotic enough, followers of onetime BBC reporter David Icke believe that certain powerful people — like George W. Bush and the British royals — actually belong to an alien race of shape-shifting lizard-people. Icke claims Princess Diana confirmed this to one of her close friends; other lizard theories (there are several) point to reptilian themes in ancient mythology. And let’s not forget the ’80s TV show V.

The Illuminati Run the World
The ur-conspiracy theory holds that the world’s corporate and political leaders are all members of an ancient cabal: Illuminati, Rosicrucians, Freemasons — take your pick. It doesn’t help that those secret societies really existed (George Washington was a Mason). Newer variations implicate the Trilateral Commission, the New World Order, and Yale’s Skull and Bones society.

 

The expression “conspiracy theory” has strongly negative connotations; it is almost invariably used in a way which implies that the theory in question is not to be taken seriously. However careful consideration of what a conspiracy theory is reveals that this dismissive attitude is not justified.

A “conspiracy” is simply a secret plan on the part of a group of people to bring about some shared goal, and a “conspiracy theory” is simply a theory according to which such a plan has occurred or is occurring. Most people can cite numerous examples of conspiracies from history, current affairs, or their own personal experience. Hence most people are conspiracy theorists. The problem is that when people think of particular examples of conspiracy theories they tend to think of theories that are clearly irrational.

When asked to cite examples of typical conspiracy theories, many people will refer to theories involving conspirators who are virtually all-powerful or virtually omniscient.

Others will mention theories involving alleged conspiracies that have been going on for so long or which involve so many people, that it implausible to suppose that it could have remained undetected (by anyone other than the conspiracy theorists).

Still others refer to theories involving conspirators who appear to have no motive to conspire (unless perhaps the desire to do evil for its own sake can be thought of as a motive).

Such theories are conspiracy theories and they are irrational, but it does not follow, nor is it true, that they are irrational because they are conspiracy theories. Thinking of such irrational conspiracy theories as paradigms of conspiracy theories is like thinking of numerology as a paradigm of number theory, or astrology as a paradigm of a theory of planetary motion. The subject matter of a theory does not in general determine whether belief in it is rational or not.

People do conspire. Indeed almost everyone conspires some of the time (think of surprise birthday parties) and some people conspire almost all the time (think of CIA agents). Many things (for example, September 11) cannot be explained without reference to a conspiracy. The only question in such cases is “Which conspiracy theory is true?”.

The official version of events (which in this case I accept) is that the conspirators were members of al-Qaida. This explanation is, however, unlikely to attract the label “conspiracy theory”. Why not? Because it is also the “official story”.

Although it is common to contrast conspiracy theories with the official non-conspiratorial version of events, quite often the official version of events is just as conspiratorial as its rivals. When this is the case, it is the rivals to the official version of events that will inevitably be labelled “conspiracy theories” with all the associated negative connotations. So, “conspiracy theory” has become, in effect, a synonym for a belief which conflicts with an official story.

This should make it clear how dangerous the expressions “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” have become. These expressions are regularly used by politicians and other officials, and more generally by defenders of officialdom in the media, as terms of abuse and ridicule.

Yet it is vital to any open society that there are respected sources of information which are independent of official sources of information, and which can contradict them without fear. The widespread view that conspiracy theories are always, or even typically, irrational is not only wrongheaded, it is a threat to our freedom.

Of course, no one should deny that there are people who have an irrational tendency to see conspiracies everywhere, and it would, of course, be possible to restrict the expression “conspiracy theorist” in such a way that it only referred to such people. But if we do this, we should also remember that there is another form of irrationality, namely the failure to see conspiracy, even when one is confronted with clear evidence of it, which is at least as widespread, and which is far more insidious.

We need a name for people who irrationally reject evidence of conspiracy, to give our political discourse some much needed balance.

I think the expression “coincidence theorist”, which has gained a certain currency on the Internet, is a suitable candidate. A coincidence theorist fails to connect the dots, no matter how suggestive of an underlying pattern, they are.

A hardened coincidence theorist may watch a plane crash into the second tower of the World Trade Centre without thinking that there is any connection between this event and the plane which crashed into the other tower of the World Trade Centre less than an hour earlier.

Similarly, a coincidence theorist can observe the current American administration’s policies in oil rich countries from Iraq and Iran to Venezuela, and see no connection between those policies and oil.

A coincidence theorist is just as irrational as a conspiracy theorist (in the sense of someone excessively prone to conspiracy theorising). They are equally prone to error, though their errors are of different and opposing kinds. The errors of the conspiracy theorist, however, are much less dangerous than the errors of the coincidence theorist. The conspiracy theorist usually only harms himself. The coincidence theorist may harm us all by making it easier for conspirators to get away with it.

Also see: Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, David Coady, Ashgate, 2006.

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